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October 2, 2014 / 8 Tishri, 5775
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The Beauty (and the Beast) of Chasidus

Even the subject of sexual relations is discussed quite candidly and in my opinion quite beautifully.
Chassidim

I must admit that the video below about Chasidic life is very inspiring. As an article in the Forward notes, this video was not produced by any of the outreach groups like Chabad or Aish HaTorah. It was produced by two women who are not even Orthodox. One of them, Elisa Goodkind, describes herself as “a Reform and rebellious Jew”. I guess it must be rebellious for a Reform Jew to portray Orthodoxy in such sympathetic terms.

The 16 minute video interviews various Chasidim, including but not limited to Chabad (Lubavitch). Which is by itself unusual. Most videos like this are almost exclusively Chabad. That’s because the nature of Chabad it to reach out to fellow Jews. As such they are always eager to ‘get the word out’ by co-operating with any documentarian that comes their way. As did Oprah Winfrey in one of her shows.

Chabad is quite good at it. I give them a lot of credit for presenting a very positive image of observant Judaism. Here again they did not disappoint. But this is the first time I’ve seen a documentary where  Chasidim other than Chabad were so prominently featured. Most non Chabad Chasidim rarely grant access to the outside world. We therefore rarely get a peek at what goes on inside their world. And they too did a good job of portraying their values and their way of life.

The fact is that many of the values and beliefs described by the interviewees are not all that dissimilar than the rest of observant Jewry. Explaining concept like modesty in dress are done quite well.  Although modesty standards are not alike for all segments of Orthodoxy, the basis for them is the same.

Even the subject of sexual relations is discussed quite candidly and in my opinion quite beautifully.

Just to highlight one part of this video, there was a description of Chasidic dating habits by both Chabad and the non Chabad Chasidm.  Lubavitchers go out on dates alone to see if they like each other. If they do, they usually get engaged. Typically after about 6 to 8 dates. In this sense they are no different than the rest of Orthodox Jewry – from the right wing Yeshiva student to the Modern Orthodox Jew.

Chabad is the exception to the rule among Chasidim. In most Chasidic communities, the parents ‘date’. This means that the parents who usually know their children quite well  will find compatible members of the opposite sex for their children via a Shadchan (matchmaker), relative, or through a very good networking system in their community.

The potential couple then usually meet in the home of the young female prospect’s parents. As explained in the video by one such Chasid, they will typically sit across a table and talk to each other for an hour or two. Perhaps there is a second or third meeting. Then they decide if they are compatible. If they agree, a wedding date is set and they do not see each other until the day of their wedding.

This is just one aspect of a very good presentation. My guess is that none of the Chasidim that were interviewed were Satmar. I say this because most Satmar Chasidim speak English as a second language with a heavy Yiddish accent. The Chasidim in this video speak English like any educated American who was born in this country. If you weren’t looking at them, you wouldn’t know you were talking to a Chasid.

The over-all impression of the Chasdic world in this video is very sympathetic. In fact the Ms. Goodkind said the following about her experience making this video:

Elisa Goodkind writes that the time she and her team spent among Hasidim in the Catskills was “a 12-hour odyssey that would change us forever.”

“[N]ot only did I begin to identify with some of my own life values, but I found a new group of the coolest people I had met in a long time, who were about to become my new great friends…

Goodkind rightly praises the strong communities built by Hasidim, who are “committed to helping their neighbors and free of a preoccupation with sensational, pop culture.” I fully agree that Hasidic communities – and Orthodox communities more generally – offer American society an important alternative model for how to build community and lead a meaningful life.

“The big families, the sense of belonging to an extended community, and the reverence for the female body, mind and soul, were among the eye-opening and thought-provoking revelations…”

I would therefore say that this video made a very positive impression – a Kiddush HaShem even. I wish it could all end there. But as we all know there is a very dark side to the Chasidic world. The Forward article (written by a direct descendant of Chasidus founder -the Baal Shem Tov and who describes herself as Modern Orthodox) mentions one such problem. The modesty patrols in Chasidic enclaves like Skvere and Satmar.

Need I remind everyone about these communities treat victms of abuse and their abusers? Or how they treat people who veer from some of their customs. Like the fellow in Skvere who tried to set up a Minyan for a sick friend against the Rebbe’s rule requiring everyone to attend only the main Skvere Shul. He as harassed and finally torched by the Rebbe’s Hoiz Bachur(young personal valet)

And then there was how Satmar treated serial sex abuser Nechemya Weberman and his victim. A courageous soul  testified against him. He was convicted and put in jail for virtually the rest of his life. The Satmar leadership vilifies her to this day and considers the convicted serial abuser a victim of her false accustations.

And let us not forget about the Toldos Aharon Chasidim in Israel who seem to never miss an opportunity to make a Chilul HaShem. Whether it is their extremist elements harassing an little girls on their way to school; throwing stones, or bleach or even acid  at innocent passersby in Meah Sheairm who do not dress according to their modesty standards; or torching a clothing stores that sell non ‘modesty certified’ clothing. Yes they are the extremists even within Toldos Aharon. But they are tolerated if not officially sanctioned by the greater community and their rabbinic leaders because they are fighting for values they all support.

And then there is the problem of Chabad Messianism. Which has in recent years quieted down. But it has not disappeared. I have no clue what is in their hearts currently about this. It is rarely mentioned any more in public. But I suspect that in their heart of hearts – nothing has changed.

The poverty situation among some sects of Chasidim has not gone away either. In fact it has probably increased. Add to this their insular ways… their negative attitude about higher education… their total vilification and rejection of the internet (as was made clear in that Internet Asifa a couple of years ago) and many other problems that exist – and it makes them not quite as attractive as the video suggests.

Of course a lot of this depends on the kind of Chasidus one belongs to. There are many types and they are not all the same.

If one looks at the positive side, there is a lot to admire and even identify with. But one must never lose sight of the problems. They are serious. And they need to be properly dealt with. Once they are, then what will remain is the very beautiful picture that this video paints.



Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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2 Responses to “The Beauty (and the Beast) of Chasidus”

  1. dina says:

    Honestly, Harry?! You just couldn’t let a good thing slip by without smearing it a bit!?

    Who denied problems?! Who said weve forgotten our problems? Who said theyre not serious? Were very well aware of our problems-but a rare opportunity to be reminded of the flip side and to be reminded of the beauty and positive does not need to be, again, shadowed by our problems.

    There’s problems everywhere in every culture, race, religion, population. Theres a time for discussing problems-and theres a time to focus on the positive and this is that opportunity.

    Your “its-wonderful-but-not-really-wonderful” piece is sadly just your way of being openly negative, and somewhat hateful, under the guise of ‘balance’. This just wasnt necessary-next time, leave it alone and let a good thing be a good thing!

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